Liam Gallagher has revealed the title for his first solo single, ‘Not For Sale.’ To stoke your Gallagher fire, we look back at Oasis at Knebworth, the focus of one of last year’s best documentaries, Oasis: Supersonic, and the legendary gig that put the Gallagher brothers front and centre of a cultural revolution
Just after 9pm on Sunday 11 August 1996, Noel Gallagher stepped on stage in front of 125,000 people for the second night running, jabbed his index finger at them and bellowed:
‘This is history. Right here. Right now. This is history!’
“I thought this was Knebworth,” deadpanned brother Liam, standing front and centre. “What are you on about? ‘Ah, we’re all going to History for the weekend to watch Oasis.’ It’s not on the map, our kid…”
Both brothers were, for once, right. Oasis at Knebworth was history in the making. Those two nights in a muddy field near Stevenage were the high-water mark not just for their band but for a wave of British culture that transformed the country at the end of the last century. For better or for worse, the energy of a whole generation was coming to a head. The art, music, film and television being produced, debated, adored and, yes, derided would come to define this country for the next two decades.
The past year alone had seen Damien Hirst win the Turner Prize with “Mother And Child (Divided)” in formaldehyde, Ewan McGregor become a junkie pin-up almost overnight via his turn in Danny Boyle’s seminal Trainspotting, Paul Gascoigne lift the ball over Scottish defender Colin Hendry at Euro ’96 and the Spice Girls tell the world what they really, really wanted on the staircase at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. There was a sense that Britain was the new centre of the world, at least creatively, and that same transformative surge of national optimism would carry Tony Blair to power in a landslide victory the following May.
Nobody rode, or fuelled, the nation’s mid-Nineties ego quite like Oasis. Just three years, two months and ten days before they swaggered out at Knebworth, Alan McGee (Oasis’ savvy label boss) had stumbled across the band playing to a nearly empty room at the 300-capacity King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow and decided to sign them on the spot. The speed of their rise was unprecedented and is unlikely ever to be repeated. The Knebworth shows, still the biggest rock’n’roll gigs in British history, came just two years after the release of their debut Definitely Maybe in August 1994.
Oasis got so big so fast that it was during their headline set at Glastonbury in June 1995 that they debuted songs like “Hello”, “Roll With It” and “Morning Glory” from their as-yet-unreleased second album. “Wonderwall” was first introduced to the nation by Noel, alone, with an acoustic guitar, live on Channel Four’s backstage Glastonbury coverage, with a bleached-haired Robbie Williams mugging for the camera in the background. When it was released in October, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? sold a record-breaking 347,000 copies in its first week and went on to spend ten weeks at No1.
If you were a young man in Britain in the Nineties, seeing Oasis live, or at least attempting to see Oasis live, was a rite of passage. Without the collective voyeurism of social media, the gig-goers’ experience back in the mid-Nineties could only be shared, liked or, indeed, lived by actually buying a ticket and turning up. Oasis at Knebworth is one of the very last large-scale concerts where the retort “You had to be there” actually still applies. This is, in part, why history has ring-fenced these gigs with a sort of hallowed sanctity. A monobrowed mythology, if you will.
Demand for their two nights at Earls Court at the start of November 1995 was so immense that immediately after the shows the band and their management began scouring the country for a venue big enough to accommodate their adoring, sweary fanbase. There was to be no Glastonbury in 1996, as Michael Eavis announced a fallow year to give his cows a break from Britpop, and arch-rivals Blur had disappeared off to reinvent themselves after the release of The Great Escape. The stage was left for Oasis to make the summer their own.
The big question was where exactly that stage would be. The Gallagher brothers were taken to various sites across Britain, but as soon as Noel visited Knebworth House in March of 1996 he was convinced he’d found the place where they’d make history – in part thanks to Tim Burton’s Batman. “Knebworth House is Batman’s house in the films,” explained Noel, who along with his brother Liam spoke exclusively to GQ about Knebworth and the new documentary out next month charting the band’s rise, Supersonic, created by Asif Kapadia and the Academy Award-winning team behind Amy.
“Did you know that? Well, when you see the Batman films and they drive through the big gates, that’s Knebworth House. So there I was driving into Batman’s house, right, in a Rolls-Royce, off my head, and I remember driving into this big field and sitting on my Rolls-Royce thinking I was Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and nearly having a panic attack cos I’d been up all night drinking, and going, ‘Yeah! I’ll take it. Where do I sign?'”
At this point, the band couldn’t announce gigs fast enough. At the end of April, they played two nights at Maine Road, home to their beloved Manchester City, in front of 40,000 people each night. If you were looking for an emblem of the renewed national pride sweeping the country, Noel had turned up playing a guitar emblazoned with the Union Jack.
A little over a week later, on Tuesday 7 May, Oasis appeared on Chris Evans’ Radio 1 Breakfast Show at 8.15am to announce they’d be playing two nights at Knebworth the following August. When tickets went on sale at 9am on Saturday 11 May, priced at £22.50 each, 2.6 million people rang in to the phone lines – one in 20 of the UK’s total population. All 250,000 tickets sold out within minutes, raising £5.6 million, and swelling the Gallaghers’ planet-sized collective ego.
After the Maine Road concerts, and as Euro ’96 got underway across England, the band took a couple of months off from touring. The Gallaghers were by now regulars on the front pages of the tabloids. The band were so infamous, so popular, that a poll at the end of June by industry magazine Music Week saw Oasis not just named as the country’s All Time Favourite Band but in doing so receiving nearly twice as many votes as The Beatles. A statement by the band at the time described the result as “blasphemous”.
They returned to touring at the beginning of August, playing two dates in Scotland at Loch Lomond in front of another 40,000 fans each night – although by now even these huge shows were being considered merely a warm-up for the main event. At Knebworth, over 3,000 crew were involved in setting up the staging for the concerts and at the time the video screen backdrops were the largest ever built. Noel claimed that his personal guitar amp-rig for the shows was louder than the sound of a jet taking off and able to be heard ten miles away.
Simply getting 125,000 people on and off site in a single day presented a logistical nightmare. Extra staff and security measures had to be laid on at Stevenage station to cope with the 30,000 fans who arrived via trains, including the “Oasis Special” from King’s Cross. On top of that, there were so many coachloads of fans arriving from across the country that a holding pen had to be built to look after the 1,500 bus drivers waiting to ferry them home again. When fans did get on site, organisers had to battle to keep up with their demand for alcohol. Vendors sold 600,000 pints of lager and went through over 2,000 beer barrels, which they had to change every 30 seconds. Even at that pace there were still hour-long queues to get hold of a beer.
The VIP area alone held more people than the Royal Opera House. If you were lucky enough to get your name on the 2,500-strong guestlist it granted you access to a backstage hamlet centred around a vast marquee bearing the legend “Creation Records: World Class”. The area served as a physical manifestation of music industry excess in the Britpop era. Nothing was not available. There were magicians, caricaturists and even, for some long-forgotten reason, an enormous Scalextric track.
Support bands started at 2pm. On the Saturday, the show was opened by The Bootleg Beatles. The idea of having “The Beatles” at the bottom of the bill showed the Gallaghers’ typical mix of veneration and arrogance. They were followed by The Chemical Brothers, Ocean Colour Scene, Manic Street Preachers and The Prodigy. Manic Street Preachers were the only band other than Oasis to play again on Sunday, joined this time by Cast, Dreadzone, Kula Shaker and The Charlatans. “It’s quite a humbling experience,” noted Manics’ frontman James Dean Bradfield on the day. “It’s [Oasis’] crowd and they’re there to see them alone. You know you’re basically an afterthought.”
Everyone was, indeed, only really there for one thing. Having already visited the site the day before, for a photo call, Oasis arrived back at Knebworth on the Saturday in a helicopter that had flown them all the way up from Battersea and brought them in over the heads of the throng waiting to adore them. Just before they appeared on stage a short video played, opening with a shot of Noel’s already iconic Union Jack guitar as “The Swamp Song” blasted over the speakers.
The band gave the fans exactly what they wanted: 20 songs that included most of Morning Glory, half of Definitely Maybe, a few B-sides and a couple of new ones that would end up on Be Here Now, the group’s third album which would come out the following summer. They finished the main set with “Live Forever”, which concluded with a giant portrait of John Lennon appearing over the stage. On the Sunday, Liam kneeled before it in supplication while Noel instructed the audience to “Show your respect.”
For their encore, they were joined on both nights by The Stone Roses guitarist John Squire for “Champagne Supernova” and their closing cover of “I Am The Walrus”, a song that The Beatles themselves never played live. “We truly didn’t give a f***,” explained Liam. “We were like The Pistols in that sense. The real deal, not careerist pretend rock stars.”
The sheer scale of the Knebworth shows cemented Oasis’ status as Britain’s biggest band. By way of comparison, even The Stone Roses’ infamous outdoor concert at Spike Island in May 1990, which the Gallaghers had hoped one day to emulate, was only attended by 27,000 people.
Knebworth, however, also came to represent a summit that, once scaled, could never be matched. Mat Whitecross, director of the 2012 film Spike Island and behind the camera again for Supersonic, says that while interviewing the Gallaghers he learned it was that weekend 20 years ago when things first started to fall apart for the band.
“What was fascinating to me,” he explained, “was that almost unanimously everyone said, ‘Yes, it was this amazing event, but actually that was the beginning of the end’. What’s vital about a small band of five working-class mates on the road together – the punk-rock spirit – is immediately lost when you become this brand. It’s like becoming IBM.” Indeed, in hindsight it seems like an obvious question: where do you go after playing to quarter of a million people in a field? As Mark Coyle, Oasis’ early sound engineer and one of Noel’s oldest friends, put it, “The next logical step is playing on the moon.”
There were even those, like McGee, who argued that the band should have split straight after the gigs, but Noel says the band were never that calculating in their decision-making. “To be that cool you have to be cool,” Noel told GQ. “And to be honest we weren’t that cool.”
Noel may not think so, but to a generation of British men the Gallaghers were just that – cool, self-assured and utterly enviable. When they played those two nights at Knebworth, Noel was 29 and Liam was still just 22, but they had already redefined what it meant to be a young man in Britain in the Nineties. For better or for worse, every man worth his Clarks Wallabees wanted their silly haircuts, their bow-legged stances and their casual, trendy outerwear. More than anything, of course, they wanted their attitude. The Gallaghers had been saying they’d be the biggest rock’n’roll stars on the planet since they were signing on the dole in Burnage. Two-and-a-half years later, standing in a field in Hertfordshire, the world finally caught up with them. That, as Noel Gallagher foretold, is history.
Some might say… Oasis at Knebworth, as seen by those who were there (and remember)
“At the time, I never gave Knebworth a second thought. It seems ridiculous to say now, but it was just another big weekend for me. Clearly flying into your own gig in a helicopter over that amount of people was a moment, but even when it was all done and dusted I don’t remember feeling, like, ‘F***, wow!’ I just carried on the party, writing and being drunk… which would explain Be Here Now. I always knew we’d reach that level because as the songwriter I was always six months further down the road than everyone else. When Definitely Maybe caught fire I’d already written Morning Glory so I knew what was coming. Our timing was impeccable and once the people are with you and you know you have the songs it’s easy. It’s more difficult to f*** it up… Mind you, the singer had a good go at it, on a weekly basis. Did the fans ‘make it happen’? I don’t recall ‘the fans’ being there when the songs were being written. I don’t recall ‘the fans’ being there when the albums were being recorded and I don’t recall ‘the fans’ being there when we were rehearsing five hours a night, five nights a week only 18 months previous. The people that ‘made it happen’ were on that helicopter. It would have been better had we not got to Knebworth for another five years but that was our moment and you have no control over it. The people demanded we play shows of that magnitude and, for our sins, Oasis always gave the people what they wanted.”
“Without sounding like an arrogant c***, I wasn’t surprised Knebworth happened that quickly [two-and-a-half years after signing off the dole]. I thought it would have happened a lot quicker. I knew we were going to be massive; it was just a matter of time. There were no nerves for me leading up to the shows. I don’t get nervous. If you get nervous you shouldn’t be doing it. What’s there to be nervous about? One hundred and twenty-five thousand people there to give you love? I’ll get nervous when no f***er turns up. It felt great selling out any gig, but Knebworth was just ridiculous. I still can’t get my head around it even to this day, but there you go. It was beyond special and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everybody for coming. You were amazing. I live for big moments like that. I can’t remember anything about those two days. I don’t know where I slept or if I slept. I’d completely forgotten about those f***ing stupid giant inflatable footballs that some bright spark gave us to kick into the crowd. That could have gone tits up – walking on stage booting balls into the crowd. Good job nobody slipped – 125,000 people and you end up on your arse. Greatest rock’n’roll gig of all time? I would agree with them. Yeah, we might have played better gigs or sang better at other grounds, the sound might have been better at others, but that crowd, as far as I’m concerned, were unbeatable.”
Alan McGee, Oasis’ manager, Creation Records
“We could have done 16 nights at Knebworth, that’s how big the band was at that point. That’s beyond comprehension. I’ll tell you something: it was full of football players. It was right after Euro ’96 and I was watching Stuart Pearce pogoing with Dennis Wise in a f***ing field. I could barely watch the stage that night because I kept thinking, ‘How much am I going to get sued for if someone gets a f***ing broken leg here?’ At the very end, after the second night at Knebworth, Meg [Matthews, Noel Gallagher’s then girlfriend] came and got me and went, ‘Noel wants to see you.’ We went back and even though it was me, who found the band, I had to go through three security checks to prove who I was. We got back there and it was one of the few times I’ve ever seen Noel Gallagher lost for words. We were in this tiny, ordinary caravan. It wasn’t a posh one, just a wee caravan. Noel was sitting in the corner, putting something in him. He looked at me and he went, ‘I don’t know where we go from here.’ Me being me, I was thinking, ‘Let’s play Antarctica and do pay-per-view’ but I couldn’t tell him that at the time. Actually, I did tell him later and he told me it was a rubbish idea. But backstage at Knebworth he tells me, ‘Maybe we should go back and play the 100 Club?’ I’m thinking, ‘You’ve just played Knebworth! What are you talking about?’ I think it did his head in actually. I don’t think he’ll ever admit that. I think Knebworth did Noel Gallagher’s head in.”
Stuart Pearce, former England footballer
“I was with Nottingham Forest at the time, and one of the younger players, Scot Gemmill, was quite into his music, as I am. I said to him, ‘If I can get tickets for this, can you sort the transport?’ He said, ‘Yeah, no problem at all.’ We were away on a preseason tour and flew back into Birmingham airport the morning of the gig. He’d laid on a stretched white limo for about eight of us from the Nottingham Forest squad to go down in. The manager was none too pleased at the time to see half of us go away on the team bus and the other half jump in a stretched limo with our goalkeeper hanging out the sunroof with a bottle of champagne in his hand. It was all going swimmingly until we pulled into Knebworth. It was raining at the time and the limo ended up getting grounded. We all had to get out and push. We had a great day. We got back to Nottingham at about six in the morning.”
Caitlin Moran, journalist
“I’m afraid my memories are very minimal. I surfed to Knebworth on an avalanche of cocaine and had to hide under a table when I got “the fear”, where I met Creation signing Trashmonk, AKA, Nick Laird-Clowes from The Dream Academy, and we talked about how much we hated drugs while I quietly chewed my own head off. Then I lost my Golden Circle wristband twice and had to blag new ones from Johnny Hopkins [Oasis’ publicist], who I remember simply being a gigantic pair of angry eyes, floating around the marquee like a cross between The Cheshire Cat and a furious djinn. He seemed to be the most powerful man in the universe. Like he could order Tony Blair to simply be thrown in the sea and it would happen. By the time the band came on stage my entire body was numb and I think I was wheeled out into the Golden Circle on one of those little trolley things they use in warehouses. I remember Liam seemed very drunk and we appeared to be in a world entirely made of men between the ages of 17-35 shouting ‘Geezer!’ and looking like they’d temporarily forgotten about their heavy scheduling of murdering women. So I guess the music was a good thing in that respect. It was a couple of days off the murdering.”
Andre Barreau, The Bootleg Beatles, support act
“We were the very first act on the first day, so we were soundchecking just before we went on. We were on stage when they opened the gates, which were miles away. It was like they were in another county. It looked like insects approaching us at first, but it was kids running to get to the front. We’d already done two really big gigs with Oasis at Earls Court in November 1995, then we did Loch Lomond, Cork and Knebworth. It was obviously a statement of intent. There’s a whole thing about them sounding like The Beatles, but they don’t really. They just love The Beatles’ songwriting and they love The Beatles’ style. They finished their set with ‘I Am The Walrus’. Again, that was a real statement: ‘We’re not coy about this Beatles thing.’ They courted it. I remember The Chemical Brothers were on immediately after us. They were really pissed off because for the first three numbers of their set everyone was still singing ‘Hey Jude’.”
Martha Lytton Cobbold, resident of Knebworth House
“Oasis stayed in a sort of glorified caravan at the bottom of the concert field. One of the promoters rang up and said, ‘Is there any chance of one of the boys having a bath?’ We said, ‘Absolutely. No problem at all.’ So Noel and one of his bandmates came up. We were expecting them to arrive at the front door. My father- in-law [Baron Cobbold] was terribly excited and wanted to greet them very formally. He was waiting at the front door, but they went to the back door looking very scruffy. Everyone assumed they were friends of my sister-in-law. They showed them upstairs to one of the family bathrooms and when my father-in-law caught up with them he, of course, immediately altered that arrangement and put them in the grandest bathroom in the house. He demanded to take Noel in a champagne tray. They assumed he was our butler-in-waiting. We never told them any differently until Noel came to do some more filming here recently. He was telling the story and he looked over at me and I said, ‘That was my father-in-law.’ Noel went, ‘You’re kidding!’ Actually, he used a different word…”
Crispian Mills, Kula Shaker, support act
“My first and most profound memory was that there was a vast area in front of the stage, the size of a football pitch, and then beyond that football pitch there was a long and very wide barrier. It wasn’t until we finished the gig that we realised that the punters only came as far as that barrier. In front of the stage, which was enormous, were just guests – VIPs. It was this strange thing where the [actual fans] were about 100 metres away from the stage. I think for most people it wasn’t really about the gig as much as the occasion. It was a moment, a mad moment in pop music. Oasis are not, I think they’d probably be the first to admit, renowned for being this incredible live band. They’re certainly not a stadium band. It was surreal to watch Oasis play Knebworth because really they were a club band who became massive. They’re not Pink Floyd. Also, it wasn’t Live Aid. There wasn’t any great moral spirit to it or high-mindedness. It was just a bit of fun, but so was Shea Stadium. The Beatles took it and used their fame and influence to be creative and turn the world inside out. With Oasis, the engines were already on fire by that point.”
Simon Mason, author
“I met Oasis at their first London show at The Water Rats in 1994 in my capacity as the man who could help you stay awake all night. I spent a fair bit of time in their company over the next couple of years. However, by the time they announced the Knebworth shows I was deeply entrenched in a heroin addiction. What I did notice, from my privileged position of sitting in a transit van with them less than two years previously, going up to T In The Park and feeling in some very small way a part of something, was that by the time Knebworth happened you had a VIP area and then a VVIP area. You were like, ‘What’s Tara Palmer-Tomkinson doing at an Oasis show?’ They were supposed to be the band of the people, but my recollection of Knebworth was that you needed about 25 wristbands to get into the inner sanctum. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I get this anymore.’ I ended up having to leave to go and score. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t stay. That’s a strange thing to say, because on the one hand you go, ‘This is amazing; half the country is trying to get tickets to this,’ but on the other hand it takes four hours to get a pint of warm beer and you have to be a minor celebrity to get within 100 yards of the photography pit, let alone the stage and the band. I think that was the same week that Bonehead [Oasis’ guitarist Paul Arthurs] went to the opening of the Prada handbag shop on Bond Street. You were thinking, ‘What the f***’s happened here?” When I walked out of the backstage area there was some boy who must’ve been 16 or 17 trying to get his way into the backstage area. I put my two laminate passes around his neck and said, ‘Go on. Fill your boots, son. They’re all c***s anyway.'”
Source: GQ Magazine